It was hard to guess what to expect from The Great Flood—a piece new enough to not have any reviews yet—before it came to Durham’s Reynolds Theater on November 5, the night after making its first impression on New York at Carnegie Hall. We knew it was a collaboration by filmmaker Bill Morrison and guitarist Bill Frisell, pairing edited archival footage with chameleonic live Americana. We knew its subject was the catastrophic Mississippi River flood of 1927 and the resultant Great Migration of Southern African-Americans, which had far-reaching cultural consequences, such as accelerating the confluence of acoustic blues with diverse strains of jazz, pop, and electronic technology. But none of this predicted how the piece would slant, how it would feel. Would it be political, polemical, tragic, nostalgic, journalistic, abstract?
The answer turned out, with deceptive simplicity, to be “Yes.” The Great Flood’s multifaceted perspective and openness to interpretation are crucial to its tremendous appeal. It probably also helps that this is familiar territory for all involved. Fresh off an album and multimedia show inspired by the portrait photography of Mike Disfarmer, Frisell has a subtle way of responding to archival images with reverent but honest music, never overstating his case. And Morrison—creator of the sublime Decasia—is well-practiced in the filmic interplay of preservation and falsification, which is to say, history and memory. Frisell and Morrison have already worked together on The Film of Her and The Mesmerist, while Frisell’s ensemble—bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and scene-stealing trumpeter Ron Miles—are longtime friends and collaborators. These layers of experience and familiarity were evident in the richness and polish of the presentation, which ranks high among the most purely enjoyable Duke Performances shows I’ve seen.
The overriding tone of The Great Flood is contemplative and elegiac. At the most basic level, it taps into the fascination of seeing how people from another era looked and behaved—or at least how they looked and behaved around cameras, under extraordinary circumstances. Filmed images of majestic proportions, many drawn from the Fox Movietone Archives and the National Archive, stretch out in moody grays, flickering with distortions that visually echo the cultural disintegration being documented. Viewed for extended durations, with musical enhancement, they take on mythic qualities; the simple stroke of a hoe in the earth like a kind of folkloric poetry. Thrilling polyrhythms take shape and dissolve in some hard-to-locate space between the mimetic action, the livid defects in the film, and the music. In titled, chronological sections, we experience the flood, the migration, and the aftermath, with motifs of flowing water asserting the implacable, one-way current of time.
NPR jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon wrote, “Frisell is known largely for drawing upon the affects of Americana—folk, country and western, what-have-you—in ways you wouldn’t immediately call jazz, but which draw from jazz in a way that implies no better descriptor.” This limber, erudite, but personal vision is a great fit for The Great Flood, which calls for a band that can put across the interrelated diversity of the era’s musical styles in a coherent package. Though it filled Reynolds Theater with drafts of Dixieland and ragtime, spirituals and electric blues, the band’s sound was all of a piece—bright, beautiful, humble music that felt spry and wakeful even at its most solemn. Miles smoldered, utterly in control whether holding down a slithering noir or vocalizing comically through the horn. Frisell twinkled, making flawless understatement sound effortless. It was refreshing to hear a clean electric guitar played with no trace of attitude, no vestige of youth-tribe affiliation: just clarity, precision, and a sensitive spirit anchored by impeccable taste. Thanks to the vanishingly relaxed rhythm section, you could hear it perfectly.
Though The Great Flood is far from pedagogical, it includes a few much-needed notes of scathing irony to make sure we don’t completely zone out and forget what was as stake here. After sections on “Sharecroppers” and “The Flood,” a fast-moving montage of a period Sears Roebuck catalog—that Bible of middle-class conspicuous consumption, rendered obscene in context of lower-class privation—provides a jolt of visual energy and mordant wit. And the “Politicians” section conjures a fury with impotent statesmen that stirs recent memories of Katrina, as the lily-white captains of industry strike photo ops with the dispossessed, framed with fake-cheery, can-do music. But more often, you read between the lines to discern the scope of the tragedy and the racial strife of the Jim Crow South. The film feels more intimately human, more tender and existential, than political.
Nature drives culture; heroism is local; everything passes and nothing is redeemed, but people help each other, and life makes its way—these are the kinds of thoughts I took away from the theater. Social lines break but life is ultimately continuous. Two late scenes drove this home beautifully. In one, close-ups of the fingers of a Southern blues diaspora were like a fossil record of a dispersed—but clearly not vanished—culture. In the other, a congregation filing out of a church looked like a river, almost a flood. Their palpable sense of common cause was the levee, to which The Great Flood shows a respect that inspires awe.